David Dinkins was the first and only African-American mayor of the City of New York, serving one term, from 1990 through 1993. A disciple of the “Harlem Fox,” J. Raymond Jones—the sole African-American to lead Tammany Hall— Dinkins rose to power through the so-called “Harlem Clubhouse” alongside politicians like Percy Sutton, Basil Paterson and Charles Rangel. Dinkins, who served in the state Assembly and as Manhattan borough president before attaining New York City’s highest office by defeating Ed Koch, has just released a memoir, “A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic.”
City & State Editor-in-Chief Morgan Pehme spoke with Dinkins about his legacy, Michael Bloomberg, Bill de Blasio and who was New York City’s greatest mayor.
The following is an edited transcript.
City & State: A number of commentators in recent years have credited you for initiating some of the key anticrime measures that came to fruition with great success during the Giuliani administration, and in your book you make a point of reminding your readers that it was you who first appointed Ray Kelly as police commissioner. Do you think that Kelly changed as police commissioner under Mayor Bloomberg, or did he continue to implement some of the policies you started?
David Dinkins: I’m confident that he did whatever Mike Bloomberg asked him to do. He is a consummate professional. The difficulties of stop-and-frisk require more than a cursory response. I think that in any segment of our society—police officers, teachers, firefighters, priests, rabbis—there’s going to be a certain element that is imperfect, that will not always do as they should—whether in one group it might be one percent and in another group in might be one one-hundredth of a percent—so it stands to reason that there are going to be some police officers who will not maybe be at all times the way they should, and therefore we favored community policing, which among other things always provided that a rookie cop was never alone but always accompanied by a professional, somebody who’d been around awhile.
C&S: Would there have been a place for stop-and-frisk in the Dinkins administration?
DD: If it’s done appropriately the way I just described it.
C&S: Other than mentioning Michael Bloomberg in passing in your memoir, you largely refrain from commenting on his mayoralty. How would you evaluate his 12 years in office?
DD: I think he did a lot of things for which we will always be grateful. I remind people that when I was mayor Mark Green was my commissioner of Consumer Affairs, and one of our goals was to try to cease the public advertising of smoking at ball games—in ballparks they would have huge billboards—and we were never very successful at that because they would respond, “They’ve leased the space, and we can’t do much about it.” Well, Mike Bloomberg not only got people to quit smoking, he did a great job of it, and as somebody who used to smoke but quit in 1962, I know what a job that is. So he did some things very well. I don’t agree with some other things. I disagree with the sugar drinks and limiting the quantity there. But Mike did a pretty good job. No mayor in our city’s history has done well in his third term. Nobody. That’s one of the reasons I beat Ed Koch.
C&S: Bill de Blasio has gotten a lot of traction from the “Tale of Two Cities” theme of his campaign. Has Bloomberg been a mayor for all New Yorkers?
DD: I think that he’s done a pretty good job. That doesn’t mean that all things are perfect, because they certainly are not, and as I said to a group assembled on the occasion of the African-American parade this past Sunday, things are not yet what they should be—Dr. King’s dream is not yet realized—but thank God they’re not what they used to be.
C&S: It has been observed by some commentators that as mayor you largely eschewed speaking directly to the problems and dynamics of race in our city. Do you regret that approach, or do you think that this is a mischaracterization of your time in office?
DD: I think that might be a characterization that’s not quite accurate. I spoke up about a lot of things, and it was after I was out of office, but, for instance, I was one of those arrested at 1 Police Plaza around the Amadou Diallo situation. In fact, I am the chairman of the Amadou Diallo Foundation. That’s not quite the posture and attitude of one who failed to speak out.
C&S: You quote Bill Lynch in your book saying that you didn’t win reelection because you “didn’t go black enough” in your campaign.
DD: That was Bill’s sort of almost a self-analysis after the fact, and that doesn’t mean that Bill was necessarily accurate. He is as good as they come—there’s no question about that—and his death hit me pretty hard, but that doesn’t mean that he was perfect in all respects, or in every analysis.
C&S: In the recent Democratic primary, Bill de Blasio won among black, Hispanic, gay and white voters. Does this indicate to you that the era of identity politics is coming to an end in New York City?
DD: I don’t know. I think Bill de Blasio won a fine campaign and I’m not unhappy with his success by any means. In fact, I spoke with him yesterday and told him I would do anything I could to help. Somebody suggested to me today that this might be seen as sort of a repeat of the campaign between Rudy [Giuliani] and me in ’93 or ’89, and my response was, “Well, if that be true, I hope it’s ’89.”
C&S: You supported Bill Thompson in the primary. Do you agree with his decision to concede rather than to force a runoff?
DD: I think it was his decision to make, and I never urged him one way or the other, because it’s a highly personal judgment that has to be made in a circumstance like that. I’m not displeased that he made that judgment, but I offered no suggestion as to what he should do.
C&S: You came up through the great Harlem Democratic machine. Do you think that the city has lost something with the decline in machine politics?
DD: I suppose there is some good and some bad. There was Carmine DeSapio and Meade Esposito, not seen as sterling figures in government. And then there was Ray Jones, who I think always supported quality candidates—your humble servant excluded—but [also] Connie Motley, Ken Clark, James Watson, Herb Evans, Fritz Alexander—so it’s not quite as simple as the suggestion that the so-called “machine politics” is all bad.
C&S: It seems like the machine enabled someone like yourself, who had such an inspiring story, to be cultivated and to be able move up the rungs. It was a farm team for talent.
DD: That’s for sure. I never would have succeeded had I not been given an opportunity back in 1965 by Ray Jones to run for the Assembly when I defeated Franz Leichter.
C&S: There was a fair amount of media in advance of the release of your book that focused on the passage in your book when you write that you lost your reelection bid because of “racism, pure and simple,” but it seemed to be that comment was a little out of context, and that you were talking about then Gov. Mario Cuomo betraying you by letting the Staten Island succession referendum to come to the ballot the same year you were defending your seat. Was that decision by Gov. Cuomo just a pander to white and suburban voters?
DD: I don’t know why Mario did it, but when he told me that the Girgenti Report had been watered down, my reaction was, “Governor, if you see me and a bear in a fight, you help the bear.”
C&S: To crystallize your legacy for history, how would you most want to be remembered as mayor?
DD: Somebody who loved children and cares about them. And I would remind people that I was criticized soundly for my support of the National Tennis Center. In fact, Rudy used it as a campaign item in ’93, and we signed the lease agreement, and then when I left office Rudy attempted to have it changed, but the United States Tennis Association officials refused to buckle and they kept it. Now that Tennis Center and the U.S. Open in two weeks yields more revenue into the economy of the city than the Yankees, Mets, Knicks and Rangers combined—the number is north of $700 million every year—and Mike Bloomberg will tell you that it’s the best deal in the nation for a municipal stadium.
C&S: You level some strong criticism in your book at Rudy Giuliani and Ed Koch. Who in your opinion is the greatest mayor in New York City history?
DD: You mean, besides me? [Laughs] I won’t attempt to say who was the greatest. I liked each mayor in some regard. I loved John Lindsay, and he certainly was imperfect. I loved Abe Beame, and he had his failings. I was not fond of Rudy because—Ed Koch wrote a book, you know what the title was?
C&S: Giuliani: Nasty Man.
DD: And I didn’t write it!
Tags: A Mayor’s Life, African-American, Basil Paterson, Bill De Blasio, Charles Rangel, David Dinkins, Democrat, Ed Koch, J. Raymond Jones, Martin Luther King Jr., Michael Bloomberg, Percy Sutton, Ray Kelly, Rudy Giuliani, stop and frisk, Tale of Two Cities